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AGM: outgoing chair Mark McCusker reviews a busy year

AGM: outgoing chair Mark McCusker reviews a busy year

Mark McCusker's review of 2014

This has been the busiest year ever for BATA.

The major shock event that occurred early in the year was the announcement by BIS of plans to change the DSA.  BATA took a lead in campaigning against the ‘modernisation’ of Disabled Students Allowances and the introduction of a £200 charge for assistive systems. Thanks to the financial support of AT Solutions Providers we were able to brief MPs about our belief that the changes would deter disabled students from studying.

We also raised our objections to the lack of consultation and to plans for the bulk purchasing of equipment. BATA held face-to-face meetings with over 15 MPs and contacted many more by phone and mail. The activity culminated in a debate on assistive technology. 

In parallel with the political campaigning, BATA members engaged with officials from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills to try and mitigate the worst effects of DSA changes.  We have been successful in influencing BIS, however this battle is far from over.  That said, I do think it is entering a new phase which will required renewed campaigning, perhaps with a different strategy.

In October we participated in the Business Disability Forum’s technology swapshop at which BATA members showcased their products to an audience of over 50 corporate delegates.  Feedback from all the BATA members who exhibited has been universally positive and we plan to run similar events in the future.

As part of our continuous reach out to other disability friendly organisations, BATA has signed the Dementia-Friendly charter and Business Disability Forum charter and have also been active in OneVoice.

In October we hosted the Future of Accessible exams conference in the London Kensington Hotel, which drew an audience of professionals from teaching, examining bodies and regulators. The event explored the introduction of accessible PDF exam papers for GCSEs in England and Wales. The audience heard about the experiences of educators in Scotland and the US and about likely technical developments in the future.  We seem to have tapped into a burning issue here.  The conference bought to the surface a range of often differing opinions.  We plan to host a follow up conference in the near future and, indeed, Abi James who spoke at the conference, is going to address the group at the end of this meeting.

The Council also spoke against the closure of Jisc TechDis, the organisation that supported assistive technology in higher education, and the scaling back of the Foundation for Assistive Technology after it lost its contract to produce an annual report to parliament. Both actions are symptomatic of a continuing squeeze in support for AT.

We have developed an independent web site and as a result improved our communications with members in terms of more news items, newsletters and business opportunities. This has been achieved with a relatively modest outlay.

We also began an enquiry into how BATA might best promote the training and accreditation of professionals who work with AT.

From our member’s perspective, the rate of the change in the technology market continues to accelerate at an insane rate.  A lot of AT is moving to the cloud or apps markets, a number of our vendor members are beginning to embrace the change.  There remain huge concerns about the economics of this model. 

New creative strategies are going to be needed if the sector is going to survive.   I can only think of one stand alone AT app that is making money.  If it is difficult for our vendor members to keep ahead of the technological race, then it is even more difficult for our non-vendor members.  BATA has a continuing role in helping to keep them informed about what is happening in the sector.

So there is huge pressure everywhere. In the midst of all that during the year we had a change of Executive Director.  In July Barbara Philips, our hard-working Executive Direct for the past 3 years, stepped down and was succeeded by John Lamb.  Firstly I must acknowledge the tireless work that Barbara did for us.  I must also acknowledge that John has bought a new energy to the role and his journalistic credentials and deep experience of AT have been of huge benefit to the organisation, particularly in the area of communications and PR.   I should also stress, that in theory, John only works 1 day per week for us.

At the same time as John coming on Board, Antony Ruck and Muzzamil Lakhani were co-opted to the Council. To help with specific tasks.  I must acknowledge their work as well as the work of my fellow directors/council members.  BATA is an organisation with very limited resources and it is important to understand that being a director of BATA is not just a question of turning up for Board meetings. 

The meetings themselves take up to four hours and that does not include travel time.  Every director is highly active between meetings and the input is measurable in days per month, not hours per month.  It is also important to recognise that the Directors do not claim expenses and this provides an indication of the level of commitment each one is making.

Under the rotation system defined in our articles, three directors are due to stand down.  This year it is Graham Coiley, John lamb and myself who are due to stand down.  However John, in his new role as Executive Director remains a council member and so there effectively is no change there.  Graham is standing down.  I know that all my fellow Board members would want me to publically acknowledge and thank Graham for all his efforts over the last three years, particularly around the DSA and DSSG-AT committee work. 

Finally, I am the third director to stand down and therefore I am also vacating the chair.  I don’t intend this to be the end of involvement with BATA, but I do feel it is important that the chair rotates and to that end, subject to the elections that follow going according to plan, Antony Ruck has agreed to take over the Chair.  I believe Antony will be a great asset to the organisation and he will bring a new perspective to the role.  I do of course, wish him the best of luck going forward. 

I have really enjoyed the being the Chair.  At times it has been demanding, but never dull.  Many, many thanks for your support during my tenure.

John Lamb looks ahead to 2015

As Mark has made clear: 2014 was a busy year for BATA and there seems little likelihood of any let up in the coming 12 months. Today is a good opportunity to look ahead at some of the programmes of work we have planned for the coming year. No doubt there will other unforeseen issues that crop up and demand our attention.

In 2015 we will be building on our campaign to mitigate the impact of changes to the DSA on our students and on our members. The £200 surcharge still remains as part of the Government’s plan to overhaul the grants scheme, but there is still much to play for. Two students have launched a legal challenge to the lack of consultation on the changes. And with an election in the offing there is also the possibility of influencing an incoming government.

Similar issues are likely to crop up this year so far as Access to Work is concerned. Following a consultation in 2014, there is the possibility of far reaching changes to the employment support programme. Access to Work is already under pressure from MPs and charities such as Action on Hearing Loss for failing to understand the needs of disabled people and for helping fewer of them than before.

BATA will also be waiting the outcome of court hearings bought by Council member Ian Litterick of iansyst. He has been pressing HM Revenue and Customs to clarify the situation relating to zero rated items for disabled users. In recent cases HMRC has ruled that phones and tablets do not qualify for the vital VAT concession thus effectively reversing a decades old benefit.

Training and accreditation is also a topic that has been under discussion at council meetings in recent months. We see an opportunity for BATA to work with accreditation bodies and organisations involved in AT training to develop courses that would fill the need for hundreds of thousands of professionals working in education, social care and support who need to know about AT. Proper understanding of AT is vital to reduce the risk to disabled people, to make efficient use of investment in assistive technologies and to avoid possible litigation.

Membership matters will also be a top priority this year. We are keen to recruit more members and that will be achieved by marketing ourselves more strongly and by creating additional categories of membership for larger organisations with an interest in AT. Our ability to represent members effectively depends on increasing the number of people who belong to BATA.

Clearer and more frequent communication with members will be an important element in that as well as offering events such as proposed seminars on R&D tax credits, exporting and public relations. We are also waiting to hear whether we can hold an exhibition of AT in the Palace of Westminster.

In 2015, BATA will work even harder to campaign for the AT needs of disabled people, to influence decision makers, to spread awareness of the technology and to promote the AT industry. Our aim is to ensure AT is as widely used as possible to enable more disabled people to live better lives.

I would like to take this opportunity to say a few words about our retiring chairman. Mark’s knowledge and experience has been a real asset to BATA over the past three years. He has guided the Council with a steady hand on the tiller. He has initiated campaigns such as the ones on special educational needs and accessible exams.

And he has cemented links with other organisations. He has always been prepared to make time in his busy schedule for BATA. I have particularly enjoyed working with him. His patience and willingness to listen to people is only matched by his ability to be decisive when necessary. He has been a very effective leader of our association.